solar panels and row houses with the hilltop in the background

Title:Green for the Blue & Gray

Author: Jane Varner Malhotra
Date Published: April 26, 2022

On care for our common home: inspired by Laudato Si’

“We need only take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair.”
Laudato Si’, no. 53

Earth Commons takes its inspiration from Laudato Si’, the powerful 2015 encyclical by Pope Francis on the pressing need to reshape our relationship with the environment. The document outlines the problem of global environmental degradation and the impact on all creation, but particularly on the poor.

“With the launch of our new Earth Commons Institute, Georgetown is in an even stronger position to realize the impact that we can make to better understand and respond to urgent challenges facing our global environment,” says Georgetown President John J. DeGioia.

“Providing a more sustainable planet for future generations is both a creative and inspiring ambition that requires the collaborative commitment of disciplines of every kind, focused on the larger goal of advancing the common good.”

In April 2021, Georgetown announced the newest “Spirit of Georgetown” value: care for our common home. Others include contemplation in action, people for others, and faith that does justice. In a way, care for our common home weaves together each of these values with the big picture reminder that we are all connected as part of our precious and fragile planet.

The Earth Commons helps make visible both Georgetown and the Catholic Church’s renewed commitment to tending to our common home. Mark Bosco, S.J., vice president of Mission & Ministry, sees it as an extension of the Jesuit way of finding God in all things.

“We can find, revealed in nature, some aspect of this transcendent God who loves us into life and calls us into human agency, calls us to work for the common good and be people for others, to nurture the environment,” says Bosco. “It is absolutely part of the Ignatian ethos. It’s no accident that as a Jesuit, Pope Francis sees this through the eyes of his Ignatian heritage.”

student with beehive
Georgetown students in the group Hoya Hive maintain eight honeybee hives on campus, caring for 200,000 busy campus residents.

Building on current strength

“Everything is connected. Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society.”
Laudato Si’, no. 91

Care for the environment is a long-standing commitment at Georgetown. The university launched the Center for the Environment in 1996, and the Georgetown Environment Initiative (GEI) in 2012. There has continued to be a strong institutional commitment through the Office of Sustainability and ambitious university goals and achievements around renewable energy, energy efficiency, and carbon neutrality. The university has also made important progress in green building, creating a more circular economy, and investing in sustainability through the endowment.

The new Earth Commons Institute builds on and expands these strengths. Led by renowned bird ecologist Peter Marra, Laudato Si’ Professor of Biology and the Environment, the institute is partnering with a wide range of environment and sustainability faculty across the nine schools, along with the Office of Sustainability. Marra estimates that there are currently over 70 faculty members actively involved in research and education around the topic. Now is the time to harness these resources and create a critical mass to have an impact, he says.

“The Earth Commons is intentionally ambitious because we have this massive environmental issue—the most important thing we are dealing with as human beings on the planet,” says Marra. “If we don’t deal with our environmental problems, nothing else matters.”

The institute is expansive in its vision because environmental problems won’t be solved by any one knowledge domain, says Provost Robert Groves. “The Earth Commons is energizing all of these pieces into a whole to increase the impact at Georgetown,” he notes. Law and policy are critical partners, he adds, as well as the sciences, naturally.

In fact, the Earth Commons’ first degree program is a joint master’s degree between the Earth Commons (Graduate School of Arts and Sciences) and the McDonough School of Business. “Combining the environment and business isn’t something most people think of as natural dance partners but they are in so many ways,” Marra says. The Master of Science in Environment and Sustainability Management is a one-year program and includes courses from climate change economics to impact investing, all with the Georgetown values focus on ethics and justice.

Interdisciplinarity is key to the Earth Commons vision: “to catalyze solutions to the world’s most urgent environmental and sustainability challenges as an internationally recognized institute for innovative education, groundbreaking research, and transformative action—on Georgetown’s campus, in our community, and around the globe.” In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis underscores the importance of a necessary deep cultural shift in how people treat the planet. Changing culture around the environment requires partnership not only with the sciences, policy, law, business, and health, but the arts and humanities, as well.

The Earth Commons works with the Humanities Initiative and the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, among others, to create the Voices of the Environment. The annual celebration of various aspects of the environment and sustainability grew out of the GEI’s Earth Week events in April. This year’s focus is on intergenerational justice, with a special emphasis on indigenous perspectives.

bird on hand
“The Earth Commons approach is immersive and experiential,” says Professor Peter Marra, “enriching the lives of students through hands-on learning that emphasizes the interconnectedness of life and actions needed to be better stewards of our common home.” Photo: Tim Romano courtesy of Smithsonian

Urgency of the moment

“We can no longer speak of sustainable development apart from intergenerational solidarity.”
Laudato Si’, no. 159

Today’s generation of Georgetown students shoulders a heavy concern for the environment. It can be hard to envision a healthy future for oneself, let alone one’s children and grandchildren, considering the trajectory humanity is currently on.

“A lot of our generation feels like this is the existential threat of our time,” says senior Shelby Gresch (SFS’22) of Seattle, Washington. Gresch is an active member of Georgetown Renewable Energy and Environmental Network (GREEN) and a student in the School of Foreign Service’s Science, Technology and International Affairs program, minoring in Spanish with a major concentration in energy and the environment.

She has dedicated much of her time at Georgetown to the environment, winning a Laudato Si’ Grant from the Georgetown Environment Initiative (GEI) to design a first-year orientation course on how to live sustainably on campus. As part of her current internship with the GEI, she is helping plan a student-run farm on campus. Happy to see environmental study expand into the much larger, interconnected, interdisciplinary Earth Commons, she says she’s glad that incoming students will have the opportunity to take advantage of the new offerings.

“The institute will focus on different ‘commons’ or specialty areas like food and water, biodiversity, and sustainability,” she says. “Embedding it across all of Georgetown’s campuses is critical because thinking about the environment should be at the top of our consciousness.”

Students like Gresch and senior Rachel Kirichu (SFS’22) of Detroit, Michigan, have dedicated countless hours through student groups like GREEN, internships with GEI and the Office of Sustainability, and informal volunteering to help grow the environmental movement on the Hilltop and beyond. But the good news is they weren’t starting from scratch, says Kirichu.

“I’m thankful that I came into Georgetown with an already established Office of Sustainability and student groups that I can be involved with in environment and sustainability. I didn’t have to establish these—previous students, faculty, and staff laid the groundwork that I can build up from. So I’m very thankful for that—it gave me the space to cultivate my passion. I hope to provide the same for new students to come in and do the same, to create even more effective change in our community and beyond.”

Gresch notes that the sense of urgency drives their generation to prioritize the environment, but there’s a sadness around it too, because other interests might get overshadowed by it.

“There feels like a loss of choice or opportunity. If I didn’t feel like we all needed to be working on this I wonder if I’d be doing something else. I love the environment and I love what I do but there’s an urgency to this that demands our attention and makes it hard to choose to do something else like be a dancer or something. There are a lot of things we can do to make the world a better place, but we have to do this immediately.”

hariri garden flowers
The Earth Commons’ first degree offering is a one-year joint master’s program with McDonough School of Business, including courses from climate change economics to impact investing, with a focus on ethics and justice.

Emphasis on teaching, justice

“It is essential to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions…. For them, land is not a commodity but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values.”
Laudato Si’, no. 146

As a Jesuit university with a strong tradition of teaching excellence, academics are the focal point of the Earth Commons Institute.

“We are leading with education,” Marra says. In addition to the joint master’s degree, the Institute hopes to develop a novel undergraduate bachelor of science degree for Fall 2023. “It will be experiential, interdisciplinary problem solving, and international, we hope, with a global component each of the four years students are here.”

Hiring more faculty is also part of the plan, including climate scientists, geographers, and experts in the social sciences looking at how humans make decisions in interaction with the environment.

“We are in such a challenging time right now with respect to where humans sit in our place with the environment. It provides me hope when I think about one of the most effective ways for
us to save humanity, to save biodiversity, is to cultivate minds. To put out the next group of environmental champions,” says Marra.

Georgetown’s emphasis on caring for those on the margins makes the university a natural place for a program that emphasizes environmental justice.

“When looking at what populations are most harmed by environ- mental damage, it’s disproportionately the poor and disadvantaged,” notes Provost Groves. “Laudato Si’ provided an ethical framework to this, and we have urgent moral obligations to act on this as a university.”

Kirichu wants to help expand inclusivity in the environmental movement. It’s another aspect of the effort that resonates deeply with younger activists, who have grown up with climate change as part of daily conversation.

“We Z-ers need to make big changes because when we hit those benchmark years—2030, 2050—our adulthood will be greatly affected by what we decide today,” Kirichu says, noting the draw her generation feels toward this issue. “Not only because our lives are being directly affected but also to make sure the movement is more inclusive, considering Native voices, Black and brown voices, considering how climate change will disproportionately affect us. Our generation wants to make concrete change that is also inclusive and effective not just for one community or group. We want a movement that elevates different voices.”

arrupe garden
Opened in 2016, Arrupe Hall is a LEED-certified sustainable residence hall featuring a green roof, water collection, indoor bike storage, and a demonstration kitchen used for nutrition education.

Putting it into practice

“Put simply, it is a matter of redefining our notion of progress.”
Laudato Si’, no. 194

As a key partner in the work of the Earth Commons Institute, Georgetown’s Office of Sustainability is expanding its reach. Led by Vice President of Sustainability Meghan Chapple, who arrived at Georgetown in 2021, the department is taking the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals and the Laudato Si’ goals and combining them into a workable but bold approach for a university. Georgetown currently sources two-thirds of its electricity from a renewable energy power purchase agreement, and aspires to become carbon neutral by 2030 and achieve 100% renewable power by 2035, in addition to its ongoing commitment to divest from fossil fuels, which began in 2020.

Chapple, who has master’s degrees in environmental studies and in business from the University of Michigan, is helping design the future sustainability priorities for Georgetown.

“What will the world—and the campus—look like in 30 years and how do we shape our culture and mindset and buildings to prepare for that?” she asks.

The answer to this question will take the form of “a sustain- ability strategy for the university that everyone has input into—faculty, students, staff, alumni, experts beyond the university who know how high we should be reaching,” Chapple says. “We’re looking at how we address our climate impact, how we become more a part of a circular, regenerative economy, and how we do this in a way that is inclusive of diverse voices. Our decisions are made with the mindset of equity and justice, so that we know how our decisions are impacting communities on campus and beyond.”

The Office of Sustainability plans to continue student internships directly connected to the Earth Commons curriculum, which offer research opportunities for faculty and students. The plans for joint programming and educational efforts are still evolving. Regardless of how exactly the programs will work together, their goals are naturally intertwined, says Chapple, who adds that Georgetown is uniquely positioned to make the Earth Commons a success.

“The power of the Georgetown name— the positive emotion it stirs in people— is remarkable,” she notes. “When you combine that with the academic accomplishments that the faculty have in their research and teaching and the students have in the education they receive, along with the reach the university has in the nation’s capital and the Catholic Church, there’s so much influence this university can have around sustainability and the environment.”

She encourages alumni to connect through common interests in the environment, noting that the Earth Commons may offer opportunities for workshops, speaker series, and other ways for Georgetown graduates to be involved, supporting students and making an impact beyond the Hilltop.

Chapple also reminds the students she works with and all people to take heart in what we can do, and not get burdened with despair.

“A lot of times we feel like it’s doom and gloom: climate change is real, everyone is sensing it, feeling it, experiencing it,” she says, noting that it’s particularly acute for people living in coastal areas and regions plagued by wildfires, intense heat, and extreme weather. “That can be overwhelming, especially as we go through this pandemic which many argue is a result of habitat destruction. It’s depressing and so daunting and can feel completely intractable.”

But, she notes, “what’s really important is to remember that every action counts, every word counts, and every thought counts.”

Or as Pope Francis puts it, “Let us sing as we go. May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope.” (Laudato Si’, no. 244)

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